Improve or Surrender – Kaizen

12 September 2013.

After the Second World War, Japan was faced with the difficult task of rebuilding its industry.


Support came from an unlikely source, the Training from within Industry ("TWI") programme. The TWI programme had been set up by the United States Department of War to offer consulting services to war-related industries whose employees were being conscripted into the US Army during the Second World War. After 1945, the programme, with a mixture of private and US government backing, spread through Europe and Asia where it was warmly received by the Japanese. One of the TWI's introductory training films called "Improvement in 4 Steps" which translated as 'Kaizen eno Yon Dankai' planted the seed of 'Kaizen' in Japan, and from this humble seed grew an industry unparalleled in its process efficiency and ability to deliver products and services of the highest quality.

But to attribute 'Kaizen' to the US intervention would be to adopt a somewhat skewed view of history. It was the 'Lean Guru' Masaaki Imai who made the term famous in his global bestseller: "Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success" (1986), and rather ironically, who brought the Kaizen methodology to executives of the leading North American carmakers in the 1980s. History aside, what is Kaizen, and what is its application?

Kaizen as a process

Kaizen is a process of continuous improvement which goes further than the workplace. According to Imai:

"Kaizen means improvement. Moreover it means continuing improvement in personal life, home life, social life, and working life. When applied to the workplace Kaizen means continuing improvement involving everyone - managers and workers alike. The Kaizen business strategy involves everyone in an organization working together to make improvements without large capital investments."

If Imai or this author didn't have your fullest attention before, surely you just perked up? You heard Imai right: Kaizen offers organisation wide, profitability increasing, workplace environment enhancing, worker empowering solutions without large capital investments.

Process improvement in one off, large scale 'step' improvements is not Kaizen's way. Kaizen steers an organization towards paying attention to small but significant details in the existing infrastructure of a business, rather than making large scale investments at distant infrequent intervals. Kaizen implementation requires worker participation at all levels, from the CEO to the janitorial staff and can also include external stakeholders when applicable.

The Toyota Production System

The Toyota Production System operates one of the most famous Kaizen continuous improvement systems. If any employee on the production line discovers an abnormality in work-in-progress, they are expected to stop their moving production line and, along with their supervisor, suggest an improvement to resolve the abnormality. Such a suggestion stands a good chance of resulting in a discreet Kaizen process improvement. The application of manufacturing process improvement may on the face of it seem far removed from firms operating in the legal services market, but a product coming off a production line can easily be compared to the delivery of legal services to a client. Before reaching the client, the legal service has been produced via a number of processes, all of which could be optimised by adopting Kaizen continuous improvement.

Kaizen and competitive advantage

Kaizen improves two key organisational goals, efficiency and quality, both of which lead to competitive advantage in the marketplace. It is not denied by advocates of Kaizen that less frequent, larger scale 'step' improvements (such as an enterprise wide IT upgrade), can give a firm competitive advantage in the marketplace. Kaizen advocates point to the consistency of the competitive advantage achieved by a firm implementing Kaizen process improvement, an advantage most marked during periods when an opponent firm is preparing its step improvements before implementing them. Combine this with the fact that Kaizen offers far smaller resource (human and financial) and environmental impact on a business, and empowers employees to be innovative and drive change from the bottom up, and the case for Kaizen is compelling. In the words of Imai,"[t]o adopt Kaizen means to be ever willing to improve, for if you don't, you surrender yourself and your market to those who do".

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